In his magnum opus, Life Is a Dream, 17th-century Spanish writer Pedro Calderon de la Barca meditates on the evanescence of identity. Zac Thompson writes that the new Building Stage production reflects Calderon's concerns with cross-gender casting, doubled roles, and a set design as illusory as the story itself. The play's blend of Greek tragedy and ahead-of-its-time modernism provokes both laughter and deep thinking. Less philosophical, more feel-good, but still fresh is Raven Theatre's Bang the Drum Slowly, in which, declares Jack Helbig, the actors work together as smoothly as the winning major-league baseball team they play.
Pegasus Players's production of In the Continuum is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand it features resonant, heartfelt performances as it contrasts the experiences of two women with HIV—a Zimbabwean mother and a 19-year-old girl from LA. On the other, Ilesa Duncan's blocking is often awkward. Night Just Before the Forest, meanwhile, inadvertently succeeds all too well. This examination of alienation by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes left the Reader's Marissa Oberlander feeling depressed and unsatisfied. Incendiary aims for laughs, not existential angst, but it too fails to come together as playwright Adam Szymkowicz struggles to connect plot lines about a serial arsonist and a therapist involved in corporate espionage. Similarly, Red Tape Theatre lavishes a strong production on George Brant's faulty script for Elephant's Graveyard. According to Tony Adler, the shame of it all is compounded by the fact that Brant based his play on a fascinating historical event.
Black Ensemble's world-premiere production of The Marvin Gaye Story draws plenty of energy from the Motown legend's music, notes Dan Jakes, but leaves something to be desired when it comes to subtlety. Scenes involving family dynamics—particularly those between Gaye and his father, who ultimately shot the great performer to death—grow clunky and cringe-worthy. Joan's Laughter suffers from a lack of nuance, too: There's too much talking in the Side Project show about Joan of Arc, little of it interesting or original—and as Joan, Meredith Rae Lyons doesn't have the skill to turn it around.
And finally, when seemingly perfect Richard reveals a gaping flaw to his doting girlfriend Maddie in Emergent Theatre's Desperate Affection, it's the writing, not their relationship, that falls apart. Maddie's continued devotion becomes implausible, and only an offstage deus ex machina preserves her morality. It doesn't save the play, though.